NEW PORT RICHEY — Avoiding the tough budget battles of previous years, Sheriff Chris Nocco asked county officials Wednesday for a budget that is $3 million less than last year.
Combined with cuts from the other elected officers, the move means Pasco has considerably more wiggle room as it heads into summer budget talks.
Nocco's request is a stark contrast to last year's proposal from then-Sheriff Bob White, who asked commissioners for an extra $4 million to hire 28 new deputies and other staffers — at a time when all county agencies were being asked to cut spending. After a protracted standoff, the two sides struck a deal that gave White $945,000 for retirement costs but no new employees.
"We are looking for a good relationship with the county," said Nocco, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in April to replace the retiring White.
Nocco's request was welcome news to county officials: "It's a whole new world," quipped Commissioner Jack Mariano.
Commissioner Ted Schrader added: "It certainly demonstrates a spirit of cooperation between the Sheriff's Office and the county commissioners."
The bulk of Nocco's savings, about $4.4 million, comes from retirement changes mandated by the Legislature.
He suggests using some of that money to hire 23 new employees: three analysts to lead a new "intelligence-led policing" effort, eight nurses to beef up medical care at the county jail and two squads to combat illegal pill mills. Even with the new staffers, Nocco cuts $3 million from last year's budget, for a 3.5 percent decrease.
Nocco said his budget implements a "philosophy shift" that targets the worst offenders and uses intelligence to move deputies to areas where crimes are predicted to occur.
"Instead of being reactive," Nocco said, "we are going to be proactive."
Last month, commissioners asked all constitutional officers to reduce their budgets by 4.5 percent. Most complied. Property Appraiser Mike Wells trimmed his budget 5 percent and Clerk of Courts Paula O'Neil found $123,000 in savings, for a 4.3 percent cut.
"I cut what I could, but we also got cut $600,000 from the state," O'Neil said.
Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley was the only official to ask for an increase, blaming a "budgeting phenomenon that occurs only every 20 years." Not only must Corley's staff hold a primary and general election next year, but he also has to prepare for redistricting and the spring presidential primary. Corley asked for a 9.4 percent increase, or an extra $252,000.
Tax Collector Mike Olson's budget is reviewed by state officials and isn't due until August.
The biggest impact came from Nocco, whose budget accounts for nearly 40 percent of the county operating fund and dwarfs the budgets of the other constitutional officers.
County officials had previously identified $4.9 million in preliminary cuts from next year's operating budget, which nearly closes a budget gap that could reach $5.1 million. Administrators plan to update the budget picture at a commission workshop next week and present a final budget proposal July 12. Afterward, commissioners will hash out the details of the spending plan that takes effect Oct. 1.
Besides the cuts announced by constitutional officers, the county also will get several million more in pension savings after the Legislature reduced the amount that local governments must contribute to the state retirement system. Lawmakers also required employees to contribute 3 percent of their salary to the pension fund — the first such requirement in state history.
Given the overall budget picture, county budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock said commissioners now have enough wiggle room to revisit some of the cuts his staff has identified. "They can say, 'We'd like to add that program back, or is there some way we can continue with this?' " he said.
In a letter to commissioners, Nocco said the employee pension requirement essentially amounts to cutting deputies' salary and asked officials to "address this pay issue if possible."
"For their sake and ours, we need to work together to take care of them while they take care of us," he wrote.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.